Ever since March, Rachel Blais has been watching the number of people who come through Iqaluit’s food bank for a hot meal tick upward.
In October of last year, the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre was serving about 150 meals per day. Blais, the food bank’s executive director, says they’re now serving more than 500 — well beyond their capacity.
“It is a very, very substantial increase, and it is resulting in us being unable to really keep up with not only the quantity of the demand, but the quality of food that we do strive to provide to our community members,” Blais said.
About 7,400 people live in Nunavut’s capital, according to the latest federal census. Blais said many of the people who come through the food bank’s doors are typically single adults, but they’re now seeing other demographics in the mix too.
“We’re seeing families with children coming into the food centre, and we’re seeing children on their own coming into the food centre, which is not something that we would usually see,” she said.
“It is a really alarming crisis in our community … and we have yet to see a meaningful response from any level of government to address this crisis.”
Across the country, the amount of Canadians accessing food banks is higher than it has ever been. Food Banks Canada’s latest report estimates more than 6,200 people across the three territories accessed their local food banks in March 2022 alone, and nearly a third of them were children.
“We’re seeing the highest food bank usage in history,” said Richard Matern, director of research with Food Banks Canada.
He said the number of visits countrywide hit nearly 1.5 million in March, up 15 per cent from March 2021 and up 35 per cent from March 2019.
“We haven’t seen increases like this since the aftermath of the 2008 recession,” he said.
In previous years, food bank usage has typically mirrored unemployment rates, the report notes, but this year defied that trend, with unemployment rates plummeting and food bank usage still rising — “We’re in uncharted territory right now,” Matern said.
Matern said the increase in use came largely because pandemic benefits ended and because inflation has increased. For people who were just getting by last year, those two factors pushed them over the edge, he said.
Matern added what’s happening in the North is a “magnified version” of the Canada-wide picture, given the higher cost of living in Northern communities.
Blais said the cost of living has affected hunters in Nunavut, too. She’s calling on governments to support hunters, pay them for their work and invest in Northern infrastructure so hunters have an easier time harvesting nutritionally rich country food for their communities.
“The government’s approach to addressing food insecurity historically, since the 1980s, has been to rely on food charities,” she said.
“As we’re seeing right now with this unraveling of the food charity industry, that is not a sustainable approach and it’s not addressing the root issue to the problem.”
Food insecurity “isn’t a food problem,” she added — it exists because people don’t have enough income to afford food.
“We do need to see policy measures from all levels of government to increase people’s incomes to keep up with the cost of living in this country, particularly here in the North,” she said.
“We have people who are living well below the poverty line all across the country, but in the North, it’s a particularly dire issue.”